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You’re a couple months out of law school, and you’ve already forgotten the speech given at your graduation. It’s expected and forgivable.
Graduation speeches, while nice, are often useless.
Partly to blame – high ideals; thoughts that momentarily inspire us but, in day-to-day life, generally loom too large to be applicable. You can also blame the small and the sweet , a/k/a wistful guidance. Things like, stop and smell the flowers ... just dance ... don’t settle. Quaint, but too small to have any real impact beyond a speech.
I love great graduation speeches, but they’re generally too big or too small - the grand oration for the successful life vs. the folksy proverb for the simple life. The just-right is hard to find.
But just-right advice is out there. And it’s workable ... long term.
It comes from (many will argue) the greatest graduation speech ever.
And it offers the one piece of advice new lawyers should always remember.
This is Water
In 2005, the late novelist David Foster Wallace gave his This is Water graduation speech at Kenyon College. Business Insider called it “history's greatest commencement speech,” an accolade reinforced by its inclusion on multiple “best” lists.
Why the greatest? A few opinions:
Wallace made a case that, at best, a liberal arts education gives you insight into how you perceive others, find meaning, and act compassionately in the world. - Janine Puhak, Town and Country
This address at Kenyon was vintage Wallace: a smart, occasionally meandering discussion of the issues that consumed him, from the banality of life to the meaning of consciousness. - Time
Wallace acknowledges life’s inevitable drudgeries, all while advocating fiercely for a liberal arts education. - Kiri Picone, All That Is Interesting
[Wallace] encouraged graduates to break free from their beliefs and "lens of self." Wallace talked about the importance of changing one's mindset. - Andrea Park, CBS News
This is Water is the best commencement speech of all time not because it has transcended the formula, flattery, and platitudes that a graduation speech trades in, but precisely because it has mastered them. - Emily Harnett, Literary Hub
In answering “Why the greatest?” neither form nor substance is the true answer, though This is Water benefits significantly from both.
So if neither form nor substance, then what else is there?
Packed into the middle of This is Water is a usable tool, like a hammer encased in concrete – it’s graspable, just waiting to be dug up. Okay, so maybe this falls under the “substantive” heading. But substantive, when speaking of words, usually means “meaningful.”
I’m talking about something that’s "handleable" (yeah, it’s a word), something that can be pulled out of your head and used in everyday life.
How to Think in the Trenches
Read This is Water.
Start from the beginning,
Don’t skip ahead.
It’s a great read.
In getting to what’s handleable (i.e., the tool you can use), Wallace begins by saying:
[T]he most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude -- but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.
What’s “hardest to see” is your own self-centeredness or, as Wallace aptly puts it, your deep belief that you are “the absolute center of the universe.”
This belief, while automatic and absolute, is utterly wrong.
The gist of Wallace’s plea is to struggle against this “hard-wired default-setting,” to resist seeing through the “lens of self.”
Basically, you must learn how to think; that is, you must exert control over how and what you think. Wallace instructs you – very bluntly – on how to:
keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.
And then Wallace jumps to the “concrete.”
This is where he hands you your handleable tool.
The Lady in the Checkout Line
Imagine, as Wallace asks you to, that after a hard 9 or 10 hour work day, you’re forced to stop by the supermarket to purchase groceries. You fight the 5 o’clock traffic jam, the supermarket’s crowded aisles, the slow-moving checkout line, all of it miserable, fatiguing and infuriating.
To make things worse, at the front of the checkout line, there is (as Wallace describes her) a “dead-eyed, over-made-lady who just screamed at her little child ....”
In seeing this lady - seeing her through your non-self lens - Wallace offers you this very real tool:
[I]f you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at [her] .... maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible -- it just depends on what you want to consider.
A Difficult Tool but a Valuable Tool
As a young lawyer, adopt this tool.
Apply it to rude lawyers, angry drivers, un-likeble clients... everyday life.*
It’s your opportunity – your choice – to see people less as monsters, more as humans. As Wallace admits, you’ll probably be wrong in seeing their lives as harder, more tedious, more painful. BUT you'll have exercised your freedom against all the “frustrating crap,” all the things that make you “pissed and miserable” without fail.
Even if you can dig deep and force Wallace’s advice to the front of your head – you know, stop and consider the various people you encounter – your success rate at actually grasping and implementing this tool, my guess, will be less than 50%.
I call it a tool, and I deem it handleable, but the damn thing’s like a hammer with a handle that fades in and fades out. Sometimes you’ll reach for it, and you’ll miss. I speak from personal experience.
My success rate with Wallace’s advice is probably sub- 50%, which means most of the time I’m cussing the driver that just cut me off. But on my few good days, I’m imaging the driver’s hurry as purposeful and forgivable: his wife’s having a baby, his daughter’s stranded on the highway, he’s late to his grandmother’s funeral. On those good days, I exercise the freedom Wallace described as:
The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.
Eyes are rolling, and that’s understandable. Not only is Wallace’s advice functionally passive (frustration always runs hotter than the alternative), it’s also, as Wallace notes, very difficult, an output of both will and effort. Far easier to swallow grand thoughts, quaint mottos, fluffy goals vs. gritty effort.
Wallace understood this, noting his own self-limitation in considering “possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying.” It’s our default-setting, which makes it easy and natural.
But “default” doesn’t make it your best setting.
Your best setting is an empowered setting ... one with options.
Wallace summed up your best setting this way:
[I]f you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars -- compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things.
*Maybe ... just maybe ... if we all gave this a try, the current divide between races and political parties would close a few forgiving inches. It might look something like the opposing protesters who peacefully came together in Dallas.